Animals were revered by the ancient Moche inhabitants of Peru and then by the Incas, with the condor one of the most highly regarded – believed to represent the sky. So I head for the Colca Valley in Southern Peru’s Andes where I hope to catch a glimpse of the legendary bird.
Our tour bus climbs through the mountains, passing herds of alpacas and llamas along the sides of the roads. The air becomes thinner with each kilometre.
“Chew these,” commands our beaming tour guide, handing around some dried leaves. Controversial coca leaves have long been used to combat altitude sickness by the residents of the Andes. We obey, chewing the bitter leaves into a gooey mess which makes my tongue go numb.
Breathtaking views surround us as we draw closer to the ravine created by the river Colca, twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. At the Cruz del Condor viewing platform, 1200 metres above the floor of the canyon, we wait expectantly for about an hour for a sighting of the giant birds — no sign. Starting to tire of the vista, disappointed spotters begin to head back to the tour bus when suddenly a huge, brown-feathered creature appears from below.
“Look!” I squeal as the condor continues to rise, carried on the thermal air currents. Its three-metre wingspan casts a vast shadow across the canyon. As everyone rushes to catch a glimpse, two more of the birds rise up to join it, the three of them soaring dramatically above us.
We are transfixed as the three birds randomly rise and fall, giant wings outstretched. Then finally they give them a majestic flap and disappear up into the bright blue of the mid-day sky. They’ve had enough of us – our cue to leave.
As we make our exit, content with our sighting, we are surrounded by herds of alpacas and llamas – far less elusive than the giant birds. They peer at us quizically, not even slightly wary of us, while mashing clumps of grass between their crooked teeth. They’re close enough to touch.
But far more appealing at this point is a relaxing dip in the La Calera hot springs at nearby Chivay where we can still admire the canyon’s precipices as we soak in the warm waters. We leave the long-lashed camelids blinking in our wake – we’ve had our dose of wildlife for the day.